Busted Halo

Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.

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November 24th, 2011

Sarah Josepha Hale was an American writer and an influential editor throughout most of the 19th Century and while most writers would be thrilled to be able to claim having made one major impact on American culture, Sarah Joseph Hale can claim to have made two. First impact came in 1830 when she published the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The second impact; Sarah Josepha Hale is credited as the individual most responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States in 1863.

Of course, Sarah Josepha Hale was not responsible for the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Even before the now famous pilgrims celebrated the feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, Spaniards conducted the first documented thanksgiving feasts in what is now the United States in the 16th century. And while days of thanksgiving were celebrated sporadically in different parts of the country in the first few decades of America’s foundation, there was no regular day of thanks set-aside. Remember, this was a time before the Hallmark Company and Car Dealerships flooded our great nation’s calendar with an endless stream of holidays.

But Sarah Josepha Hale thought such a national day of Thanksgiving would serve as a …

October 6th, 2011

“We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.” 

This summer, I spent a lot of time in a room that overlooked the graves of Sam Adams, John Hancock, and the parents of Benjamin Franklin. And also with me in that room, along with the ghosts of the American Revolution, was my new 21.5-inch iMac with the 2.5GHz Core i5 processor, the invention of another American revolutionary.

I share the processor speed because, as any Mac nerd would know, this machine is on the lowest end iMacs one can currently purchase.  But even so, it cuts through the processing of HD video like Bill Clinton would a plate of pork chops. It was in this room in Boston that I was working on my first documentary film. And there was this moment in the middle of editing footage I had shot that day on the new Final Cut Pro that I realized that it would have been impossible for me to do the kind of film that I was trying to do 20 years ago in the rather minimalist way that I was trying to do it.

Being a filmmaker was a dream that I had …

September 10th, 2011

FBI 10 Most Wanted - Osama Bin LadenI probably shouldn’t say this, but I REALLY do not like the Sunday Gospel… the one where Jesus says that you have to forgive “not seven times but seventy-seven times.“  I think today, I’d rather read a Gospel like Luke 17:1, where Jesus says, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”

A question that has been asked of a lot of people over the past few days is, “Where were you ten years ago today?” I was walking into work—with a cup of Dunkin Donuts in my hand—and without having heard what was going on an office worker asked me if I was ready to go to war. Like everyone, I called family to make sure that they were alright. Like many people but not everyone, I found out that they were okay. And like a lot of other people, I had an overwhelming desire to go to church, to receive the comfort that …

August 29th, 2011

“Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.” 

When I first read those words by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on Self-Reliance, I was a junior in West Morris Central High School and — coming of age in upper-middle class New Jersey — had never met a poor person and didn’t really know anything about poverty. What I did know a lot about was being an awkward teenager who cared way too much about what others thought of him and spending a lot of time by myself. So when I read further in Emerson’s essay on the importance of being an individual, a chord was struck. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius.” From that moment on, more and more of my “psychic eggs” were placed into the basket labeled “individuality.”

Don’t ask me what a psychic egg is…I’m just trying to make a point.

I carried a book of …

August 17th, 2011

As my summer draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on my feelings of starting a new year of seminary.

In order to answer the question, “Am I looking forward to going back to seminary?” it’s probably best to relay a conversation that I recently had with one of the Paulist priests. It was a simple conversation that happened a few weeks ago; I bumped into this Paulist with whom I am friends in DC while I was staying in Boston for the summer. He asked me if I was looking forward to my upcoming ordination. I replied that I was. Very much so. Because then I wouldn’t have to be in seminary any more.

My answer was not that I would finally get to serve the people. My answer was not that I could shine the love of God outward into a darkened world. It was that I would not have to be in seminary any more.

I know, I know. On some level I am supposed to say what a grace-filled time this is, what a blessing it is for me to have the opportunity to grow as a person, that all of God’s gifts are good, blah, …

August 5th, 2011

When 10,000 Maniacs visited Loyola College in Maryland in 1990, I did not go. As a college freshman who was only a few months removed from the “Hair Metal” culture that then dominated Northern New Jersey, I was not able to comprehend a band whose female lead singer used dramatically less “Aqua Net” than the male lead singers I had been listening to. But lately, I have found myself nostalgic for music that I did not listen to “back in the day,” music that never found it’s way into my own stereo but was playing in the background in the rooms of those with more progressive musical tastes. Perhaps it’s because the music of Natalie Merchant, R.E.M., and the Sundays never had the opportunity to be overplayed in my Walkman that their connections to another part of my life remain strong.

On some level, it’s a little strange that my song of the summer is about a child’s vacation spent somewhere in Europe. I have spent the last two months in Boston, a city that began as a rejection of all things east of the Atlantic and “Verdi Cries” is not exactly a song that would ever be covered by …

June 19th, 2011

The thing about studying theology, especially Catholic theology, is that you have to learn all of these new words… Greek words.   Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me?”  Well, after three years of graduate study to become a priest, I am now convinced that that phrase originated with a theologian.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Greek language in and of itself… it’s just that after a while, it’s hard not to wonder why one has to know so much of it in order to grow in one’s relationship with God.  I mean, when I first heard the word “exegesis,” I originally thought meant those times when Jesus left the building.  When my Scripture class threw the word “hermeneutic” at me, I was confused because I originally thought that the word meant the study of quiet, solitary people.

clarence-clemons-and-springsteen-are-born-to-run.800w_600hSo what does all of this have to do with Clarence Clemons?  Well, it’s because he helped me to understand one of the words added to my theological vocabulary this past year: anamnesis.

The word—which is a Greek derivative—means “to remember,” which might beg the question as to why those in theological circles don’t just use the …

April 29th, 2011

doubledownI love The Onion.  I do.  If there is one media source that I can go to at any given time and KNOW that I’m going to have at least one good laugh, it’s the Onion.  I’ve been reading it for almost fifteen years, and I’m still amazed at how funny and biting it can be.  You may agree with me on this, but the more I read the Onion and the more I watch the news, the more the “real” news headlines begin to remind me of The Onion’s fake headlines.  I mean, do you remember the “Double Down” sandwich offered by KFC last year that did away with the bread and offered two fried chicken breasts instead with bacon and cheese in the middle?  I swear it was not until I actually drove by a KFC a few days later that I was convinced that it wasn’t a gag headline along the lines of “New Taco Bell Menu Item Ready For Testing On Humans.”

I share this because between the various Facebook postings and news alerts I receive during my sporadic opportunities to watch TV these days, I’ve already heard way too much about the …

April 2nd, 2011

The scene: 10 eighth-grade religious education students, their teacher, and yours truly—a plucky seminarian who was brought in for “Vocation Awareness Day.”  I talk, explaining the many ways we can all serve God in our lives, and that religious life is one of those ways — a very good way… yada, yada, yada.  Are there any questions?  A hand goes up.  I graciously call on the inquisitive young child.

“Why are priests always so fat?”

It is important to note that there was still some sugar on my shirt from the doughnut I had just scarfed down after Mass… black clothes do a terrible job of hiding sugar.  It is also important to note that the previous evening I had more than my fare share of Texas Barbecue at an establishment known as “The Salt Lick” and I can only guess as to how much brisket my system was still digesting.  The morning before that I delighted in a jalapeno-and-cheese sausage breakfast burrito.  At this point, I had gained eight pounds since arriving at my pastoral assignment with four months to go.  That’s in addition to the ten pounds I had gained since joining religious life.

KS_Priest_HotDog_CROPWhile I cannot claim …

March 22nd, 2011

In today’s media environment, we invariably hear the stories about which things go wrong.  I guess it’s human nature to focus on the negative, but the focus of news organizations do have its place.  I think that when issues like the sex-abuse crisis continue to unfold, we do need to be reminded of it so that we don’t turn our eyes away from it, lest we conveniently skip over the lessons that we may have to absorb as a Church.  I remember during Benedict’s visit a few years ago, a Catholic commentator was on television claiming that the Church sex-abuse crisis had been put behind her and now we could all move on… 18 months later it exploded again in Europe.  Sadly, negativity has its place in the world.

That being said, I realized after writing my last post which focused on the letter a friend of mine wrote to me concerning the sex abuse crisis, it might be important to take a step back and share what I like about the Catholic Church.  Because I can get stuck focusing on the wrongs of a person or the failures of an institution as much as anybody.  I am more than …

February 15th, 2011

I recently heard that the second priest to have ever dined in my parents’ home had been implicated in sex abuse scandal. As a former child abuse prosecutor and now mother of four, it has been a particularly difficult question to answer why stay in light of the crimes committed by an astounding number of priests and the subsequent systemic cover up by members of the hierarchy…

So began the letter of an old college friend with whom I have recently connected on Facebook.  This friend has been an active member of the Catholic Church for as long as I’ve known her; in college she served as a sponsor for RCIA and after college she spent a year as a full-time volunteer.  As the note continued, she did make a point of saying that she had not left the church and she is indeed making sure that her children are being raised in the faith.  Still, the frustration was there… and I recognized it because it is the same frustration that I have also been trying to move beyond.

FistFor years, the scandal and the ensuing cover-up served as one of the main reasons I resisted joining the priesthood… hence …

January 26th, 2011

KS_DiscourseIn retrospect, I realize it wasn’t fair that the shooting in Arizona two weeks ago was immediately blamed on the poisonous quality our political discourse has taken over the past number of years.  But I also can’t lie — my knee jerk reaction on hearing about the shooting was that the crime was indeed a crazed ideologue committing this heinous act.  And the fact that I was far from being alone in making that immediate assumption does bespeak of a larger issue going on in the nation.

While wrestling with the question of how to proceed, I spotted a bumper sticker.  It said, “Don’t Drink and Derive… Alcohol and Calculus Don’t Mix.”  That one didn’t help me out too much, but then I saw another bumper sticker that seemed to help me: “WWJD?”

Indeed, “What Would Jesus… um… Discourse?”  Though I’m certain the bumper sticker meant another more quaint phrase we’re all familiar with, it did get me thinking.  I began to reflect on the nice version of Jesus on which I was raised.  You know, the James Taylor version who always wore Birkenstocks and sang John Denver songs.  This is the Jesus who says in the Gospel of Luke, …

January 7th, 2011

While I adore the parish at which I am serving this year, I sometimes wonder if it is run by Quakers rather than Catholics.  Because at the beginning of Daily Masses at my Church, only the priest seems to have an assigned role.

Of course roles are much more defined during the Sunday services, but for whatever reason the role of lector and Eucharistic minister at my church is left to whomever the Spirit moves during the week; daily Masses are usually characterized by the assembled faithful giving each other looks that communicate after the Opening Prayer is finished, “Are you going to do it? Do you want me to go up?  Are you sure?”

Partially because I like to read and also partially because I am the seminarian, I usually walk up if other people have not suggested (verbally or non-verbally) that they would like to read.  Except this past Monday another wrench was thrown into the service after I approached the altar; when I walked up to the lectern, the book was not put out.

And it’s not as if this was necessarily a national disaster—the 5:20 evening crowd tends to be a laid-back bunch who don’t freak …

December 22nd, 2010

I realize that in my last post, I might have come off as kind of a grump… exams and papers will do that to you.  Not that I take back anything that I said regarding the importance of Advent or the true awfulness of the song “Last Christmas,” but when I hit the “Send” button on my last paper of the semester this past Saturday, the holidays began for me!

Still, after my last post I do feel the need to prove that I am not a total Mr. Potter.  In fact, it’s because I like Christmas music so much that I can’t stand when it is co-opted in order to give second-rate musical artists a shot towards achieving some “American Idol” style mediocrity.  So with that in mind, I would like to offer what I will be playing on my iPhone this holiday season!

Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Made me proud to be Gen X!  Modern, fun, and reverent… not an easy hat trick but the Canadian artists pull it off.

Jack Skelington: What’s This?


“This children are throwing snowballs… instead of throwing heads!  There’s frost in every window, …

December 5th, 2010

For almost every Mass on the first Sunday of December I can remember, a (visibly angry) priest would climb to the pulpit and offer a predictable lament.  The lament was that “society” had, once again, started the celebration of Christmas four weeks too early; we as faithful Catholics were strongly encouraged not to take part in this abomination.

Of course, over half of the congregation had already accepted party invitations, had presents purchased during Black Friday stashed throughout the house, and had already set up a tree.  No matter!!!  The priest would challenge the community not to use the “C-word” (Christmas) until December 24.  Because Advent is a SERIOUS time!  A QUIET time!  A time to PREPARE!

Of course when the priest said this I thought to myself, “Of course it’s a time to prepare; that’s what all of the sales are for!”

This attitude did not change much when I arrived at seminary.  One December for a prayer service, I led a silent mediation with George Winston’s “December” album playing in the background, a somewhat obscure collection of piano tunes that have never been featured in any Rankin/Bass production.  Yet after the service, one of the other students came …

October 29th, 2010

rally23:17 pm: After a long Metro Ride back (never ride the DC Metro with Joe Williams… bad luck always follows), Joe, Carolyn, and I talk about the place of religion in the public discourse in the hopes we can have a more open conversation as a whole, with people feeling free to both challenge and be challenged. We get back to St. Paul’s College and we drink beer. T’was a grand day!

2:35 pm: We decide to head out. We see someone holding a sign with a picture of Jesus that says something like, “That’s not what I said!” Had to get my picture taken with it.

2:02 pm: It’s funny, because there are so many people dressed up here today, not many people really notice me wearing a collar. BUT they do notice that I have a collar and a microphone. Most people are pretty cool, but a few have their suspicions when a guy wearing clerics want to ask them about religion. I wish I were also wearing a sign that said, “Not trying to sell you anything… just want to find out where you’re coming from!”

1:58 pm: I REALLY want a rally hat… but they are …

October 28th, 2010

TDS-CR-rally-flash2[check out Tom's live-blogging from the Rally]

When I was growing up in the 1980’s in Northern New Jersey, there was this infamous—INFAMOUS—series of commercials broadcast throughout the New York Metropolitan Area.  His business was electronics and his name was…Crazy Eddie!!! In the good old days of six-station television, the only way it was possible to avoid this foaming maniac of a salesman screaming, “We ARE NOT undersold, we WILL NOT be undersold, we CANNOT be undersold, and we MEAN IT!!!” was if you had your channel permanently set to PBS.  And at the close of every commercial came the infamous tagline, “Crazy Eddie… his prices are IN-SA-A-A-A-A-ANE!!!!”

Given that Jon Stewart also grew up in New Jersey during the 80’s (albeit a few years ahead of me), one can assume that he has seen his fair share of Crazy Eddie commercials.  And while his “Rally to Restore Sanity”, happening this Saturday in Washington D.C., may not be an event to shed light on the corrupt retailers of the world, one gets the sense that Stewart experiences a great deal of frustration that our political discussion looks a lot less like two scholars quietly discussing PBS over …

October 8th, 2010

Any casual glance at Roman Catholic history would be likely to reveal that our Church has a somewhat… complicated… relationship to war.  The first example to come to many people’s minds would be the Crusades, that period of history when Western European Christians tried to “evangelize” those living in the Holy Land by force.  But another example of that complicated history with violence can be seen in the feast we’ve celebrated this past week: Our Lady of Victory.

Matka_Boza_Rozancowa_z_SandomierzaOn October 7, 1571 a fleet of the Holy League decisively defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire.  The five-hour battle was fought off of western Greece, near the Ottoman naval station in Lepanto.  The victory gave the Holy League temporary control over the Mediterranean, protected Rome from invasion, and prevented the Ottomans from advancing further into Europe.  But credit for the victory was given to the Blessed Virgin Mary because a rosary procession had been offered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome for the success of the mission to hold back Muslim forces from overrunning Western Europe.

So when reading more about the origin of this day, my initial thought was to talk about the violence of our world and …

October 6th, 2010

My memory… it slips sometimes.  I wish I could blame it on my advancing age.  After all, forty is right around the corner and I’d like to simply believe that as time passes, so do the hard drive of my brain has to let go of some of the storage in order to make room for more up-to-date files… of course then I’d have to ignore my past history, including one of my more infamous episodes from college.

I was visiting some friends after my junior year of school one summer evening and everyone decided to hit the bars… as many of my friends were wont to do during that time of our lives.  But since going out in that manner was something I did a lot at that particular time of my life, I volunteered to be the designated driver.  We had a good time throughout the night, my buddies downed some beers while I shotgunned Diet Cokes.  As the bars began to close, we all go into the car to head home with me driving.  Not thirty seconds after pulling out of the parking lot, a police car turned on his lights and we pulled over.

In those …

September 20th, 2010

This past Sunday, some of the Paulist students were invited to participate in a dialog that was held at Park 51, the site of the new Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan that has been getting so much attention in the news as of late. The event was sponsored by Unity Productions, an organization that has been promoting an initiative entitled “20,000 Dialogues,” in which a particular documentary film is watched about the faith of Islam, followed by a discussion. A few days later, I sat down with Craig Campbell, CSP to ask him about the event.

TG: How did you get involved in this dialogue?

CC: I saw their documentary “Talking Through Walls” on PBS. After the airing, the company who made the film would send it out for free to those who would commit to hosting a dialog, so I ended up hosting one when I was on a parish assignment in Toronto and we had a showing last year here in DC. We’re going to be doing it again in Washington on October 29.

TG: How did the event go?

CC: Very well. 75 people showed up for the dialog at Park 51… the building is basically gutted …

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